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211 Operators Answer Some Of The Toughest Phone Calls In King County

caption: Alex Williams, an operator for 211, King County's information line for emergency food or shelter.
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Alex Williams, an operator for 211, King County's information line for emergency food or shelter.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

A phone rings in a room full of busy operators at Seattle's Crisis Clinic. Alex Williams answers this one.

“Good morning, thank you for calling King County 211. My name is Alex. How can I help you today?"

King County 211 is the line members of the public can call for emergency shelter or social services.

“Generally, people need help and don't know where to turn, so they can call 211," Williams told me before taking the call.

"We do try to stress that, unfortunately, because the need is so great, it isn't likely to be immediate, and it could be months, even, before they are placed in a shelter, even."

The median wait time for a homeless family seeking housing in King County is 200 days.

It’s a hard message to deliver, Williams says. “We deliver it often, but it doesn't get much easier. It's tough.

"There are some real tough calls. Sometimes, people are really having a hard time. We take calls from people that are in a domestic violence situation, which can be scary, and people are sometimes frantic when they call."

Operator Caitlin Eagan takes a call from a homeless woman who has just spent the January night outside with her child.

"Outside? I'm so sorry to hear that you're going through that," Eagan says, her voice quavering slightly.

“We have a setting on our phones," Williams says. "It's called 'stressful call debrief,' where we're able to take a few minutes, if we need it, to recover from a difficult call, make sure we're in a good frame of mind when we take the next call.

"But sometimes, even, people call, and they're so overwhelmingly grateful for some of the services that we provide that they get emotional and it makes us sort of emotional. You want to kind of make sure you've even recovered from that before taking on another call."

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